Gregory Keller, director of the revival of La fanciulla del West, discusses what we can expect when opera meets the Wild West.
Giacomo Puccini’s western opera, La fanciulla del West, hits the East Coast again this fall, when the Metropolitan Opera presents Giancarlo del Monaco’s production October 4 – 27 in New York. Fanciulla was the first world premiere ever performed by the Met, and one of only two Puccini premieres that would eventually join the standard repertory – the other being Il trittico.
Puccini got the idea for the opera from his first visit to New York in 1907 to supervise productions of his operas Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. At the time, David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West was playing on Broadway and Puccini attended a performance. One imagines him, inspired by Belasco’s play, returning to his home on the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli in Torre del Lago, Italy, and, as the avid sportsman was known to do, spending chilly mornings in a duck blind then heading home to compose. In 1910, Puccini journeyed back to New York for the premiere of his opera based on Belasco’s play.
We talked with Gregory Keller, the revival director of the Met’s 2018 production, about what people can expect when opera meets the Wild West.
Cowboys & Indians: Is this production still set in Gold Rush-era California, or is it getting a different treatment?
Gregory Keller: This wonderful production by Giancarlo del Monaco is set in Gold Rush-era California, and is realistic and faithful to the intentions of the composer. It stars Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and both Yusif Eyvazov and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick (at different performances). The conductor is Marco Armiliato.
C&I: Why is the role of Minnie one of the most celebrated for a female in all of opera?
Keller: Minnie is a truly three-dimensional, “modern” character. We leave the 19th century, which had a male-dominated fascination with the “hooker with the heart of gold” (Manon, La Traviata, Carmen), and we begin to see a woman who is more complex. While still composed by a man, Puccini continues the insightful character work he began with Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. Minnie is a continuation of this progress, both dramatically and musically. Her character is even more approachable, yet also more complex. It’s also technically a long, hard sing, full of a huge range of octaves and emotions, and it must all ring psychologically true. We all want to love Minnie, we all want her to succeed, which is a great part for the singer, because she has the whole opera house pulling for her through the entire opera. I’m confident the wonderfully talented Eva-Maria Westbroek will do all this, and more. Not only is she an amazing singer, but also one of the most committed dramatic actors I’ve ever seen on the stage. It’s going to be a thrilling and dynamic performance.
C&I: Puccini was an outdoorsman. Does that manifest in this opera?
Keller: The score is sweeping and expansive, and full of chromatic color. As a California boy, I immediately recognize this feeling of grandeur and immensity that Puccini adds to this powerful music. In Act II, Puccini scores a magnificent snowstorm — starting with Billy Jackrabbit’s shrug of “Ugh, neve!” (Ugh ... snow!) at the first snowflakes — through a full-blown mountain blizzard. He’s able to capture that feeling of swirling snow, blasts of wind, and finally the white-blindness of a Sierra Nevada storm. You can feel the cold in your bones when you listen to this exceptional music.
C&I: How do you keep a period western relevant, or is “relevance” an unimportant criterion in the staging of a classic opera?
Keller: I’m not sure opera has ever been “relevant”! It’s always been an elite, erudite, and expensive art form. I do believe an audience wants to see an interesting story that is well-staged, well-sung, and well-played. Then the experience in 2018 in the opera house becomes relevant because you are able to reach back into time and be deeply affected by these characters and this touching story of forgiveness. We make opera relevant by filling the stage with life, passion, and truth — then the audience will react to this 108-year-old piece as an immediate, thrilling, and “relevant” experience.
C&I: What do you hope people will take away from the Met’s production of this misunderstood and masterful opera?
Keller: First of all, that opera can be a fun, rambunctious evening in the theater — filled with raucous bar fights, crooked poker games, and lots of horses! I also feel this is a critical time in America for us to look back at who we were, in order to clearly see in what direction we want this nation to go. Are we going to be driven by our baser instincts of revenge, jealousy, and greed? Or are we a people capable of forgiveness and redemption?
In the finale of Act III Minnie’s lover, Dick Johnson (aka Ramerrez, is found out as the leader of a Mexican gang, and about to be hanged, vigilante-style, for his crimes. Yet Minnie is able to convince the townsfolk to forgive Dick and not execute him. As Minnie and Dick head off into the California sunset, the town sends the couple off in a chorus filled with love, appreciation for this beautiful land, and the promise of a golden future. Isn’t this who we are as Americans? Isn’t this the country we want to live in? Is this opera “relevant”? I certainly hope so.
For more about the Metropolitan Opera’s October production of La fanciulla del West, visit metopera.org. Photography: Act II of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in the Metropolitan Opera’s current staging/Ken Howard, Courtesy the Metropolitan Opera.